Renee Tajima-Peña’s “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” tells the story of a Chinese American man who was beaten to death in 1982 after his bachelor party by two autoworkers during a time of anti-Asian hate as Japan was blamed for the downturn in the U.S. auto industry.
The Academy Award-nominated 1987 film, directed by Tajima-Peña, professor of Asian American studies at UCLA, and Christine Choy, a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, will be screened Dec. 4 at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, followed by a Q&A with the directors.
Tajima-Peña went on to direct “No Más Bebés” (2015) and produce the five-part documentary series “Asian Americans,” which premiered on PBS in May 2020. She also co-founded with noted writer and UCLA Asian American studies department alumnus Jeff Chang, the May 19th Project to amplify stories of people who work toward justice and to promote solidarity after the most recent rise in anti-Asian violence and George Floyd’s murder.
For decades your films and efforts have examined injustice and intolerance. What inspired you to take on these subjects?
I make films when something pisses me off. When I heard about the murder of Vincent Chin and his killers’ sentence of probation and a fine, that pissed me off. I learned about the story behind the film “No Más Bebés” through the historian Virginia Espino, who also teaches at UCLA. We’re neighbors and when our kids were small, we’d have playdates and chat about our work. One of those times, over wine and Legos, she told me about her research into Mexican immigrant women sterilized without their consent at Los Angeles County–USC medical center in the 1960s and '70s. I looked at my kid playing there and thought about all the hopes and dreams and joy of pregnancy and motherhood. The idea of being denied that just hit me in the gut. Virginia and I decided we’d make a film together because the question of women’s reproductive freedom has never gone away.
You have told stories that have been overlooked, and ones that many likely just want to forget. How do you find and choose the subjects of your works?
For documentary filmmakers, I think a story calls out to you. It becomes an obsession, you just can’t get it out of your head.
One thing I have to say about “Asian Americans” is that, although the series is framed by the history of colonialism and systemic racism that shaped our history, the whole team wanted to portray the entirety of our experience. The humor, stories of family, resilience and activism, what we’ve created as Asian Americans.
The May 19th Project is a social media campaign and web series of 14 videos. In March of 2021, Jeff Chang and I started talking about the alarming viral videos that were flooding social media. These videos were a collision of two stereotypes — Black and brown male “criminality” and Asian American “model minority” victimhood. We knew the data from University of Michigan, University of Maryland and the FBI told a different story, that the predominant perpetrators of anti-Asian violence were white. But these images were a 21st-century version of wedge politics we’ve seen before.
But the model minority myth became a powerful cultural drug, and last year that Asian American wedge was exploited once again as a part of the backlash to the mass demonstrations against police violence and calls for change. So we wanted to reframe the narrative and uncover the stories of solidarity of Asian American–Pacific Islanders with other communities. We rarely hear of Frederick Douglass’ advocacy for Asian immigrants during the 1860s. Or the Filipino and Mexican American farmworkers who worked together to launch the international grape strike a century later. Or the Japanese American survivors of World War II incarceration camps who helped lead the effort to overturn the Emergency Detention Act when Black activists feared that their communities could also be subject to mass detention.
Vincent Chin’s murder happened 40 years ago, and while there’s been so much progress, the story is just as relevant today. How do you keep going?
I think the question is how does the community keep going, especially in light of the past three years of pandemic and violence. On March 16, 2020, the former POTUS first tweeted “Chinese virus.” A year to the day later, eight people were gunned down at three Asian businesses in the Atlanta area. But the swift response to this violence — not only from the Asian American community but solidarity from so many others — has been breathtaking. That’s why we were able to produce the May 19th Project in record time. People wanted to do something.
Last June, I went to the multi-day 40th commemoration of Vincent Chin’s death in Detroit that was organized by Helen Zia and the original campaign for justice leaders, as well as the next generation of Michigan activists who weren’t even born yet when the Vincent Chin case was happening. What was striking is how current and forward-looking that event was. They not only showed “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” but also an amazing film called “Bad Axe” by a young Cambodian-Mexican American filmmaker, David Siev. He filmed his family during the pandemic and aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, trying to keep their restaurant alive in the small, almost all white town of Bad Axe, Michigan. To see the scene of his sister facing up to armed neo-Nazi militiamen at a George Floyd march in downtown Bad Axe is a thing of beauty. That’s why we’re all still here.